Artist Tips & Tricks , Inspiration Colour Yellow: What It Means and How Artists Can Utilise the Benefits for Their Artworks
What does the colour yellow mean? The fiery hue in between green and orange in the colour spectrum, it is the most vibrant pigment to ever grace our eyes. Being an earth tone, the yellow colour palette is naturally a part of our daily lives.
It evokes strong emotions that we associate with certain universal experiences like watching the sunrise and sunset by the beach. In the meaning of colours, the yellow colour palette is associated with light, knowledge (remember the famous light bulb?), and flourishing of life. We see it on a daily basis in our food, shelter, and nature – but have you ever asked yourself: what does the colour yellow mean? To further understand how to use it in our art, daily lives and to gather yellow art inspiration, read along.
Yellow Colour Palette: Origin
Its etymology came from the Proto-Indo-European word ghel that means to shin‘. This language was spoken from 4500 BC to 2500 BC, during the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age. From here, terms such as gold, glitter, and gleam – all related to the yellow colour palette, arose. The oldest yellow on record came from a family of earth colours made out of clay, where the first red pigments came from. It was first used in art during the prehistoric era – with a horse painting in the cave of Lascaux, France. That’s one art inspiration! Today, that painting is estimated to be 17, 300 years old.
Ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France
The discovery of the yellow colour palette created a huge demand. People made use of saffron, turmeric, and Garcinia tree resin to extract similar-looking pigments to use for everyday trade.
Fun fact: The yellows we see in nature (saffron, turmeric, eggs, lemons, etc) all contain an organic pigment called carotenoid – which gives them their yellow characteristic.
Yellow in the Ancient Cultures
In Ancient Egypt, the yellow colour palette represented the might of the sun; thus anything coloured yellow in their art meant imperishable, eternal, and indestructible. A small paintbox with yellow pigment out of orpiment – a deep-coloured, orange-yellow mineral was even found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun upon its excavation.
The sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun displayed in his burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt
What does the colour yellow mean in India?
Possibly because of its association with gold, the yellow colour palette represented merchants in ancient India. Hindus wore this colour as a symbol of sanctity during the Festival of Spring celebrations. Turmeric, or yellow ginger, were used in the kitchens and applied on the faces and bodies of subcontinental women, and used for their pre-wedding festivities and rituals. That’s another yellow art inspiration!
Up to this day, it is considered a powerful repellent for its antioxidant, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities. This explains the Indian custom of sprinkling turmeric water around the house before and after prayers, signalling a ‘cleansing’ of the home.
In China, only the Emperor and his household were allowed to wear yellow clothes. The royalty’s special guests were also welcomed on a yellow carpet upon arrival.
Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, is thought to be the founder of Chinese civilization due to the tremendous amount of inventions that took place during his reign – giving the yellow colour palette a more symbolic meaning.
What is the yellow colour palette’s symbolism?
Since time immemorial, yellow has been associated with rebirth and knowledge. It inspires original thought and inquisitiveness, and researchers believe that it increases self-esteem and strengthens overall health and well-being! In the following section, we will talk about the role and importance of the yellow colour palette in various festivities across different cultures.
Yellow as the colour of spring
Spring is the season for symbolic renewal, and nature grows in harmony with this! Fresh flowers grow and bloom, the hours of daylight increases, and all over the world, people engage in festivities to celebrate a new life. Yellow, being the colour of spring, plays a special role in this symbolic season for various religions in history and modern times. Let’s take a closer look at some of them and maybe find more yellow art inspiration.
Yellow sunrise over the mountains
In Christianity, the beginning of spring commemorates Easter, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most Christian children were accustomed to painting eggs, wearing brightly-coloured clothes, and playing games of Easter-egg hunting growing up. However, Easter also welcomes a new life as it celebrates the end of chilly winter to herald the sprightly spring season. Hence, the floral beauty, enchanting fragrance, vibrant hues, and clear skies add to the charm of this season.
Colours also play specific roles in the Easter tradition. What does the colour yellow mean in this season?
RED: Red is associated with the blood that Jesus Christ had shed for mankind; it represents the love and sacrifice of God the Father for humanity. In this article, we tackle up the symbolism of the colour red more extensively.
WHITE: White signifies purity and grace.
YELLOW: Universally related to the brightness of the sun, yellow symbolises the anointing of God, happiness, and unending faith.
A funny bunny, one of the symbols of the Easter celebrations
The word equinox hail from the Latin language that means “equality of night and day.” It is the time of the year when light and darkness balance out, and day and night are at equal length with one another. In the Northern hemisphere, the equinox takes place on or after the first moon of spring, which is why it is also connected to the rebirth of Jesus Christ.
The Egyptians, Greeks, and Mayans also celebrated the resurrection of their own gods during this season. People in the ancient times performed rituals during the equinox to cleanse out old energy in themselves and in their homes.
Up until the 18th century, the equinox was considered the start of the new year in many parts across Europe. It represented light, life, and joyful beginnings.
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The tradition of Maslenitsa goes back to the time of the pagans, when Russians would bid farewell to the harsh winter and welcome spring with open arms. Since then, certain practices of celebration to commemorate it has been observed in Russia. The rituals of Maslenitsa are very unusual yet interesting, because they combine the end of winter rituals and the opening of spring festivals.
The activities are generally observed for three weeks, but let us narrow down the season’s most important symbolism.
During the Maslenitsa celebration, Russians eat as many pancakes as possible! They are freshly made and eaten every day, and in doing so – people hope to consume the sun’s warmth and energy. Since spring is coming, nature seems to wake up from a long hibernation during the winter. Bears were considered masters of the forest, and people bring them pancakes as an offering and a way of welcoming spring together.
Pancakes on Maslenitsa Festival
The grand finale of the pancake week is burning the effigy of Maslenitsa, a straw-stuffed doll, dressed in female clothes, which marks the imminent end of winter. In the old days, people also threw pancakes into the fire as a form of funeral repast for the “dying” winter. Art inspiration, how about an effigy of Maslenitsa?
Maslenitsa’s final day (which usually falls on a Sunday) is dedicated to forgiveness. It is a day when people ask for the forgiveness of others, and forgive those who have wronged them as well. They end it with a light heart before a final round of festivities – full of dancing bears, fireworks, and delicious food to top it all off!
Coming from the Persian word that means “new day”, Nowruz falls on the first day of the first month of the Iranian calendar. It has been celebrated for over 3,000 years, originating from Iranian and Zoroastrian roots. This occasion marks the beginning of spring and the vernal equinox; and the return of the spring was seen to have great spiritual significance, symbolising the triumph of good over evil and joy over sorrow.
The moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes night and day is calculated exactly every year, and families gather together to observe the rituals. Yet, above all these celebrations – Nowruz celebrates the possibility of a new life.
Yellow’s Dominance in Religion
Now, what does the colour yellow mean spiritually? As the colour of light and divinity, the brilliance of the yellow colour palette represents holiness in Christianity. This is evident in the golden halo that appears on top of the head of Christ, and the blinding light that emanates from the ‘chosen ones’. These are best represented in the religious paintings that gained much popularity during the Renaissance era. Yet, due to its off-white property, yellow was also associated with Judas Iscariot and heretics that represented corruption and wickedness.
The Peruzzi Altarpiece, Giotto di Bondone. Gold and tempera on panel, 1300 ca.
In Buddhism, yellow has the highest symbolic value through its link with the saffron robes of monks. This colour, previously worn by criminals, was chosen by Gautama Buddha as a symbol of his humility and separation from materialist society. Saffron yellow signifies renunciation, desirelessness, and humility. It is the colour of earth, and a symbol of rootedness in the earth.
The Yellow Colour Palette in Nature
Being an earth colour, yellow has an exceptional presence in nature – especially in the flower blooms that we grow in our gardens. Each kind of yellow flower carry an interesting symbolism, and we will discuss some of these below.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
– An excerpt from William Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’
A field of golden daffodils
Daffodils represent rebirth and new beginnings. In the poem, the author was feeling gloomy when he chanced upon thousands of golden daffodils. The sight immediately brought him joy; and from that point on, each time he was alone with his melancholic thoughts, he just remembers the dancing daffodils and feels happiness inside. Remember the dancing daffodils for some yellow art inspiration.
Marigolds, on the other hand, are called the “herbs of the sun”, and represent passion and creativity. Its name came from the phrase “Mary’s Gold,” since early Christians placed flowers instead of coins on Mary’s altar as an offering. However, they are also known to symbolize cruelty, grief, and jealousy.
With brilliant yellow petals also known as “rays,” sunflowers are a classic favourite art inspiration. They grow into the direction of the sun, and thus were named as such. Today, it is admired for its charm and delightful disposition, and also sourced out for their seeds and oils — great in cooking and skincare!
Meaning of yellow roses
It was not until the 18th century that yellow roses were discovered growing wild in the Middle East (Find out more about red roses in this article).
Yellow flowers and roses bouquet
Yellow roses gained their reputation as an excellent source of cheerfulness and optimism. But you may ask – What does the colour yellow mean in rose symbolism? They give a message of appreciation and love without the romantic notion of red roses. These flowers are a good bunch to give to your friends and family for well-wishers of health and speedy recovery, or to simply show your appreciation. They are an interesting subject for artworks, too! If you want to learn how to paint roses with oil paint, check out this very detailed yet easy tutorial on our Youtube channel!
The Altai Mountains is a mountain range in Central and East Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan come together – has been listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The name, in Turkic Alytau or Altay, means Al (gold), tau (mount); the “Mountains of Gold.” This mountain range is rich in many natural resources like iron, gold, mercury, manganese, and marble. It is also the source of the Ob and Irtysh Rivers, two of the major rivers in Asia.
Did you know?
In the animal kingdom, yellow can also symbolize impending danger. The yellow colour palette is widely used in aposematism or the appearance of an animal that warns a predator against attacking it.
The Yellow Colour Palette in Art
Because of its positive, and sometimes overwhelming (when used too much!) qualities, the yellow colour palette was widely used in the history of art by many different artists, but most utilized by the 19th-century Impressionist movement.
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner, or “The Master of Light” is an Impressionist who loved using the yellow colour palette in his works. His paintings are famous for depicting an almost spiritual magnificence of light, as seen in nature. However, his contemporaries used to mock him and critics stated that he had yellow fever because of the colour’s abundance in his works. Yet, this did not stop him. He continued to create more yellow paintings, and by the end of his life, his works were all about the sun. Today, Turner is celebrated for his great command of the yellow colour palette, and is considered as one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
“Sunset on the River”, Joseph Mallord William Turner. Oil on canvas, 1805
It is undeniable that J.W. Turner was a great genius in his command of colour, yet he found a way to incorporate the yellow colour palette in almost all of his works – showing how important this noble colour was to him. At the end of his life – Turner’s paintings were all about the sun. It makes one wonder as to what does the colour yellow mean for Turner, that he dedicated a major part of his life in trying to depict this beautiful hue.
“Whoever wants to know something about me … ought to look carefully at my pictures.”
– Gustav Klimt
Klimt is another artist who is known for his wide usage of gold in his works. He began his career with a group called “Company of Artists”, who took frequent trips to Venice to work on mosaic and mural projects inspired by the Art Noveau movement. Their early years inspired his gold leaf technique and unique imagery. He began to incorporate these styles into his personal paintings; and out of all his body of works, the artworks done during his Golden Phase were the ones that made his mark in art history.
Gustav Klimt’s Golden Phase gained much attention with his most famous “The Kiss” – completed in 1908. It portrays a man and a woman as they peacefully embrace in a patch of shimmering flowers. Clad in contrasting patterns and predominantly composed of gilded forms, they encompass the decorative focus of Klimt’s Golden Phase. – The Splendid History of Gustav Klimt’s Glistening “Golden Phase” (by Kelly Richman-Abdou, My Modern Met, 2018). How about some gold for art inspiration?
The Kiss (Lovers), Gustav Klimt. Oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1907–1908
Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh, an avid student of colour theory, used combinations of yellow and purple in several of his paintings to achieve maximum contrast and harmony.
His usage of the yellow colour palette evokes a certain feeling of nostalgia. The Yellow House, originally titled “The Street”, is an oil painting of a house where the artist rented four rooms together with his friend Paul Gaugin. Located in Arles, France, they created a shared studio space out of these rooms. Vincent loved the yellow house so much that he created a graphite sketch and watercolour variations of this painting, which he later on sent to his brother Theo.
What does the colour yellow mean for Vincent Van Gogh? It was suspected that Van Gogh had xanthopsia – a colour vision deficiency in which there is a predominance of yellow in vision due to a yellowing of the optical media of the eye. This explains the juxtaposition in his colours that make his works more vibrant – a phenomenon he would explore more deeply and set him apart from other Impressionists.
“The Street” aka The Yellow House, Vincent Van Gogh. Oil on canvas, 1888
The impressionist movement of the 19th century was primarily characterised by small, thin, and loose, painterly brushstrokes. Compositions were mostly landscapes and outdoor scenes in a glimpse. The main emphasis in Impressionist works is the accurate depiction of light and its changing qualities, often accentuating the effects of the passage of time.
Did you know that the first impressionist in America was actually a woman? You may want to check out the intriguing story of Mary Cassatt here and use her as art inspiration.
Impressionists played with bright colours to show shadow, value, and imagery instead of focusing on details. Synthetic pigments for artists’ paints also grew in options, providing Impressionists with vibrant colours other artists have never used before.
Claude Monet, the father of Impressionism, was interested in the beauty of the subtle changes in the atmosphere. In 1917, he painted Water Lilies in Giverny – a vibrant image of water lilies in a pond reflecting the change of light in its surroundings. Monet utilized the yellow colour palette in this work.
Water Lilies in Giverny, Claude Monet. Oil on canvas, 1917
What does the colour yellow mean in architecture? Quite surprisingly, the yellow colour palette plays a big role in its history and advancement.
Let’s take a look at a few natural yellow rocks that were used in ancient architecture:
The largest deposits of travertine in the world are found near Tivoli, Italy; formed in hot springs and limestone caves. It has been used in many famous constructions in history, dating back to the first Dynasty of Egypt in 3200 BC! The largest known building made entirely of travertine is the Coliseum in Rome, completed in 80 AD by Imperator Vespasiano – as a form of honouring the grandeur of the Roman empire. Up to this day, Tivoli remains to be the world’s largest suppliers of travertine.
Lemon yellow travertine block stone
Obtained from the Combe Down in Somerset, England – bath stone is an oolitic limestone made of calcium carbonate granules. This secret to the famous golden-coloured walls of Bath, England is also referred to as a freestone, which means it can be carved in any shape or direction without breaking structure. This characteristic makes it a very popular choice of material for the construction of churches, houses, and public buildings all over England.
The Great Pyramids of Giza remain to be one of the world’s largest mysteries – both for its real purpose and the manner of how it was built.
Most scientists believe that the limestones used for its construction were transported from nearby quarries, as these stones are formed in clear, warm, and shallow waters. It is estimated that 5.5 million tonnes of limestones were used in the construction of the Great Pyramid’s core along with granite, mortar, and basalt.
Did you know?
Indian yellow used to be a very controversial pigment? The colour was originally manufactured from rural India from the urine of cattle fed only on mango leaves and water! The urine would be collected and dried, producing foul-smelling yellow balls of raw pigment, called puree. The process was allegedly declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908 as the cows used for production were extremely undernourished.
Ball of raw Indian yellow
Practical art knowledge
Natural, organic yellow dyes for fabric and fibres can be created from blossoms, leaves, roots, and barks of many different plants. The key is to gather them during the right season. Watercolour papers are naturally yellow because they are composed of water-absorbent fibres.
The yellow colour palette can be used as an additive, mixed with different pigments to add light and brightness for glazes and lighter tones. Since yellows are not as strong as whites, this palette can be used as natural highlights in all painting genres.
Yellow as a binder
Classic tempera paintings were mostly done using egg tempera, known for its capacity to produce vibrant, jewel-like paintings. One advantage of this is that its colours do not change over time, and no glaze needs to be added afterwards. With egg tempera, only the yellow yolk of the egg is used, but small amounts of vinegar and water are added before mixing it with powdered pigment This is to prevent the paint from cracking over time.
Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth. Watercolour painting in egg tempera, 1948
Linseed oil is a yellowish painting medium obtained from dried, ripened seeds of the flax plant. It may be used individually or mixed with thinning solvents, making the paint more transparent and glossy. It is also an edible oil used as a nutritional supplement, being a good source of omega-3 fatty acids! In parts of Europe, linseed oil was traditionally eaten with potatoes and quark, enhancing their otherwise bland flavours.
Known as acacia gum or gomma arabica, gum arabic is made of the hardened sap of the acacia tree, resulting in a natural yellow gum.
Since it dissolves easily in water, gum arabic is used as a binder for watercolour paintings, as well as to create watercolour paints, with pigments suspended in the gum arabic in varying amounts. In watercolour paintings, gum arabic results in a paint film, increasing luminosity and preventing the colours from lightening
In our colour palettes, ZenART included the essential yellows to use to create your desired work of art. Always remember: high-quality oil paints don’t yellow with the passage of time.
ZenART Supplies oil paints from the Essential Palette in use during one of my en-plen-air painting sessions
Cadmium yellows are a vibrant bunch of yellow colour palette that’s leaning more towards the orange-y side, so it can easily be used to render flowers and sunsets. They are very striking, vibrant, and bold to the eyes. The main ingredient of cadmium is Greenockite, a rare natural mineral known in nature. It has cadmium sulfide, prepared with an acid solution and heated with hydrogen gas until a powder was formed. Hues ranging from a lemon yellow to a deep orange were made in this way.
As the name suggests, lemon yellow is a pale yellow colour palette derived from the colour of the lemon fruit. It has low hiding power (more translucent) and as compared to the cadmium yellow, this colour is brighter and more striking to the eyes. You can use this to render lemons, vibrant flowers, do glazes, and create contrasts in your compositions.
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Ah, the mother of all yellows – yellow ochre! It is a natural mineral clay colour, found throughout the world. From this pigment, other yellow colour palette hues were made from. Yellow ochre is an essential colour to have when creating skin tones.
A beautiful yellow-green pigment, lime was considered to be a life-saving colour during the 18th century, when voyages were deadly until sailors were given citrus fruit! They cured scurvy for British sailors then, and is now a great source of many important vitamins, especially Vitamin C.
Yellow in the modern era
Today, the yellow colour palette has retained its associations in history. It still carries a specific brilliance and magnificence in society, being a symbol of sunshine, hope, and happiness. Still, the conflicting symbolism of the colour still remains.
What does the colour yellow mean in the modern era? Bright yellow is a colour that captures attention, and when used in combination with black, creates one of the most striking colour combinations that can be seen from long distances. This is why school buses, taxi cabs, and traffic signs (very evident in New York!) are all painted yellow and black.
Yellow taxi cabs in New York
Yellow gemstones are believed to aid in clarity for decision-making, boost concentration, increase energy, and offer relief from burnout, panic, nervousness, or exhaustion.
Tropical countries have a lot of yellows in their food too, for the colour represents heat, life, and happiness. In Southern Italy, yellows are abundantly used in their ceramic art practices. Mexico and Cuba have yellow cars and walls in their buildings – to represent light and abundance in nature. Russia’s mental asylums are called ‘yellow houses’, associated with its encouragement of hope and optimism in people.
What does the colour yellow mean in fashion? During the Victorian Era, brilliant yellow was used sparingly. Ladies were advised to wear modified hues of yellow like butter-yellow and primrose to avoid the colour from overpowering the wearer It was considered to be particularly becoming to brunettes and ladies with black hair as it neutralized the yellow and orange undertones in their skin, thereby whitening and brightening the complexion. The yellow colour palette was also used in shoes, gloves, hats, and jewellery laid with gold.
Dolce & Gabbana Fashion Show (Runway RTW, Spring 2016 – Milan Fashion Week)
Since then, yellow has been a popular choice in fashion for both men and women, as the colour brings forth a joyful disposition. This 2019, yellow is the biggest colour trend for spring.
In feng shui, yellow belongs to the fire element.
Like the sun, the yellow colour palette wakes up any dull room. This is especially true in cold countries where the sun tends to shine a little less. Yellow painted walls give off a cheerful and uplifting vibe, creating a cosy feeling for your home and office.
In many ways, the use of yellow colour is identical to the feng shui use of orange colour, as both are a gentle expression of the fire feng shui element. A strong, vibrant yellow colour palette should be used in moderation in some very important areas in your home. The centre or the heart of your home will thrive in yellow; southwest areas to be filled for love and marriage; and northeast for spiritual growth and cultivation. Since yellow is an appetizing colour, it is to be used sparingly in the kitchen and dining! This will encourage people to have a more joyful and welcoming disposition.
There is still so much history in the yellow colour palette to be discovered, but we hope we were able to answer your query on what does the colour yellow mean. What I have provided you with is a brief summary of the colour’s practical knowledge and uses that you can easily incorporate into your daily life! Did you find it useful? What colour would you like to read up on next? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂
— MEET THE AUTHOR—
Ardak Kassenova is a London based contemporary artist, co-founder and creative director of ZenART Supplies. Her visual style—contemporary impressionism—share similar aesthetic qualities with those by the French Impressionists. After 20 years of a successful corporate career, becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, and with the continuous development of her practice by taking private lessons from the best artists she could find; Ardak decided it’s time to align her life with her true passion, Art. Driven by this passion and her corporate leadership background, she co-founded ZenART.
“My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums.”
Read more about Ardak Kassenova in this feature. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!
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